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Learning from Hurricane Sandy Champions of Change

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How much of an impact can a small group of volunteers make after a disaster? 

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of addressing the Hurricane Sandy Champions of Change – a group of “ordinary” people who did (and are still doing) extraordinary things to help those who were impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Many of them suffered damage to their homes and businesses as a result of the storm, but continued to fulfill the needs they saw in their communities.

champions of change at table

CAPTION: Washington, D.C., April 24, 2013 – The White House Champions of Change event which honored people and organizations directly involved in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy. These hidden heroes implemented innovative, collaborative solutions to meet the unique needs of communities and neighborhoods as they worked to rebuild after the devastating effects of this disaster.

The exceptional work of these Champions of Change reminds us that every disaster, big and small, brings out champions in our communities.  It’s our job as government leaders to recognize this and support their success. This impressive group showed us what it takes to be a champion:

  1. Champions aren’t afraid to act – When people hear the term “first responder”, they often think of fire engines and search and rescue teams.  And that’s right.  But many times, the “first responders” after a disaster are neighbors and those within the community.  They’re the ones immediately knocking on doors, checking on friends and loved ones, and seeing if people’s basic needs are being met.  And neighbors are the ones who know the community best. What makes the Champions of Change a special group was that they were able to identify the unique needs of their own communities and respond to them.

    As the Champions shared their individual stories, a few of them said “Do what you’re good at.”  That’s a great perspective, and that’s exactly what they did –they took it upon themselves to help their neighbors— applying their skill set to solving real problems.  If they knew how to cook, they prepared meals. If they could gut and pump homes, they got to work. If they could set up wireless networks for internet access, they made it happen.  Having an impact during and after emergencies can be as simple as focusing on what you’re good at and taking action.
  2. Seeing the public as a resource, not a liability – Within government, there’s often been a tendency to rely on government alone to respond to emergencies.  This top-down approach, assumed people needed to be taken care of and have their needs met for them. 

    What the Champions of Change demonstrate is that this way of thinking is shortsighted – individuals and communities often rise up and solve problems on their own.   We have to look to all of us to solve problems and bring our best.  The best approach by government is to work with the public as a valuable partner— a resource that helps after a disaster, not a liability that needs to be taken care of.  Those impacted by disasters aren’t “victims”, they are “survivors”.  Those of us in government should be continually looking for ways to work alongside impacted individuals and communities so we can bring every possible resource to bear in helping their neighborhoods recover. 
  3. Solutions built around government are too small – Another reality that the Champions of Change brings to light is how big disasters can be.  If we only build solutions or systems that work within the capabilities of government, communities will suffer.  What happens to that system when the disaster is bigger than the government’s scale?  What happens to those impacted by the disaster when that system doesn’t do what it’s supposed to?  Government by itself does not have all the answers – the team responding to disasters must be much bigger than that.

    We can’t fall into the trap of government having the answers because disasters hit communities and families.  That’s why we need to build our response and recovery systems around the public first.  Members of the community need to be at the planning table alongside government, businesses, and non-profit organizations because they’re the ones that best know the needs of the community and they’re the ones who are often the first responders. That’s what the Champions of Change did – they identified people’s needs in the community and scaled their solutions to meet those needs.

champions of change at table

During the event, the Champions were also asked to give their advice to others on how to prepare for emergencies, and our FEMAlive Twitter account captured what a few of them shared:

Without the tireless efforts and countless hours of volunteers, we would not be as far along as we are after Hurricane Sandy.  There is still a lot of work to be done for every community to fully recover.  The purpose of Wednesday’s event at the White House wasn’t just to recognize the impact of the 17 Champions of Change – it was also to inspire others to act.  I hope you will follow the lead of what these Champions of Change are doing in their communities and take action to make your family, street, town, neighborhood, or city more resilient.

For more on the White House Champions of Change, visit www.whitehouse.gov/champions.

What We’re Watching: 4/26/13

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At the end of each week, we post a "What We’re Watching" blog as we look ahead to the weekend and recap events from the week. We encourage you to share it with your friends and family, and have a safe weekend.

Monitoring Flooding in Midwest

We continue to closely monitor the impacts of severe weather and current and possible flooding conditions in several Central U.S. and Midwest states. We encourage all residents in potentially affected areas to follow the direction of local officials and keep informed of local conditions by monitoring local radio or TV stations for updated weather and emergency information.  And remember, if local authorities order an evacuation, leave immediately; follow evacuation routes announced by officials, and stay away from coastal areas, river banks and streams.

Driving through a flooded area can be extremely dangerous. When you are in your car, look out for flooding in low lying areas, at bridges, and at highway dips. As little as six inches of water may cause you to lose control of your vehicle.  Remember – turn around, don’t drown.

Those in areas affected by the heavy rains and/or in areas anticipating high river crests, familiarize yourself with the terms that are used to identify a flood hazard and discuss with your family what to do if a flood watch or warning is issued.  Here are some terms to familiarize yourself with:

  • Flood Watch: Flooding is possible. Tune in to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for information 
  • Flash Flood Watch: Flash flooding is possible. Be prepared to move to higher ground; listen to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for information. 
  • Flood Warning: Flooding is occurring or will occur soon; if advised to evacuate, do so immediately. 
  • Flash Flood Warning: A flash flood is occurring; seek higher ground on foot immediately. 

You can visit www.Ready.gov/floods for more information and safety tips on what to do before, during and after a flood.

In the News

FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino was on the ground in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, last week during the bombing attacks at the Boston Marathon. Today, he shared his perspective on the community-wide effort to respond to last week's tragic bombings in an op-ed for the Boston Globe.

Here’s a little of what he had to say:

Growing up in Boston, you know that Patriot’s Day and the Boston Marathon come together to create a day like no other. We pause to celebrate our heritage, the city shines and our streets fill with millions of residents and visitors from around the block and around the world. For most of my life, I worked those same streets for Boston EMS, ending a 36-year career as chief of the department in 2009.

There were many nights I went home proud of the men and women of Boston EMS, but I was never more proud of them and the residents of my town, than I was last week.

While in one moment we saw terror and brutality, in the next we saw our community’s love and compassion. We saw our EMTs, paramedics, police officers, and firefighters spring into action and perform their jobs heroically.

Read the rest of Deputy Administrator’s Serino’s perspective.

In Case You Missed It

Inspiration was also on hand this week.  The White House held its Champions of Change ceremony honoring people and organizations directly involved in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy. These hidden heroes implemented innovative, collaborative solutions to meet the unique needs of communities and neighborhoods as they worked to rebuild after the devastating effects of this disaster.

Washington, D.C., April 24, 2013 -- White House Champions of Change event which honored people and organizations directly involved in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy. These hidden heroes implemented innovative, collaborative solutions to meet the unique needs of communities and neighborhoods as they worked to rebuild after the devastating effects of this disaster.

CAPTION: Washington, D.C., April 24, 2013 -- This White House Champions of Change event honored people and organizations involved in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy.
 

 Washington, D.C., April 24, 2013 -- This White House Champions of Change event honored people and organizations directly involved in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy. These hidden heroes implemented innovative, collaborative solutions to meet the unique needs of communities and neighborhoods as they worked to rebuild after the devastating effects of this disaster.

CAPTION: Washington, D.C., April 24, 2013 -- White House Champions of Change stand for a picture with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.
 

We also live-tweeted the event and I wanted to share two tweets that stuck out to me:

Congratulations to these men and women for their dedication and commitment to serve their fellow neighbors during their time of need.

Have a safe weekend!

What We’re Watching: 4/12/13

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At the end of each week, we post a "What We’re Watching" blog as we look ahead to the weekend and recap events from the week. We encourage you to share it with your friends and family, and have a safe weekend.

Monitoring Severe Weather

We continue to closely monitor the severe weather, including dangerous winds, tornadoes and severe winter weather that affected parts of the Central U.S., Midwest and Southeast, last night and Wednesday. We encourage those in affected areas to continue to monitor local radio or TV stations for updated emergency information, and to follow the instructions of state, tribal and local officials. 

If you haven’t already, now is the time to get prepared for severe weather.  Visit www.ready.gov to learn more about what to do before, during, and after severe weather.

Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind should severe weather occur in your area:

  • Familiarize yourself with the terms that are used to identify a tornado hazard.
    • A tornado watch means a tornado is possible in your area.
    • A tornado warning is when a tornado is actually occurring, take shelter immediately.
  • Ensure your family preparedness plan and contacts are up to date and exercise your plan.  Learn about the emergency plans that have been established in your area by your state, tribal or local government, and ensure your home and car are prepared for the severe weather.
  • If you haven’t already, now is the time to get prepared for tornadoes and other disasters. Determine in advance where you will take shelter in case of a tornado warning:
    • Storm cellars or basements provide the best protection. If underground shelter is not available, go into an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible.
    • In a high-rise building, go to a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible. Stay away from windows, doors and outside walls. Go to the center of the room. Stay away from corners because they attract debris.
    • Vehicles, trailers and mobile homes are not good locations to ride out a tornado. Plan to go quickly to a building with a strong foundation, if possible.
    • If shelter is not available, lie flat in a ditch or other low-lying area. Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.

We will continue to monitor weather conditions as these storm systems move across the East Coast and will provide updates as necessary.

National Tribal Consultation Call

Over the past several weeks, we’ve hosted regional tribal consultation calls with tribal leadership, their organizations and stakeholders to present information regarding changes to how the federal government provides disaster assistance to tribes and how we can better meet the unique needs of Indian Country after disasters. We’ve gathered valuable comments and insights from our tribal partners related to declarations procedures and this process is culminating in a National Tribal Consultation call next week to further discuss improvements to the disaster assistance process.

Join us on Thursday, April 18 at 3:00 p.m. EDT for a National Tribal Consultation conference call and provide your comments on:

Here’s the call-in information:

  • Date & Time: Thursday, April 18 at 3:00 p.m. EDT
  • Number: 888-708-5699
  • Passcode: 1601121

You can also provide your ideas and comments by visiting FEMA’s online collaboration community, or by sending us an e-mail at tribalconsultation@fema.dhs.gov.  

In case you missed it, Administrator Fugate recently blogged:

When you're tackling a new and challenging topic, starting from a solid foundation is crucial to success.  Right now, there is an opportunity to change how the federal government provides disaster assistance and we’re looking for tribal leaders to help set a solid foundation for those changes…

We hope that you can take part in this opportunity to shape disaster assistance programs and processes more effectively.

Youth Preparedness Council

It’s not too late to submit an application or nominate a young leader in your community for our Youth Preparedness Council.  FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council provides an opportunity for young leaders to share ideas and solutions to strengthen the nation against all types of disasters.

Here’s a short video from U.S. Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island encouraging teenagers to apply to serve on the council.

Remember, the deadline to submit an application or nomination is next Friday, April 19.  So head over to Ready.gov/youth-preparedness for more information or to download an application today!

Getting it right for Indian Country

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When you're tackling a new and challenging topic, starting from a solid foundation is crucial to success.  Right now, there is an opportunity to change how the federal government provides disaster assistance and we’re looking for tribal leaders to help set a solid foundation for those changes.

When President Obama signed into law the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, he amended the Stafford Act to recognize the sovereignty of tribal governments, and this was a big step in the right direction to better meet the unique needs of Indian Country after disasters.   However, there's still work to be done to shape disaster assistance programs and processes most effectively.  That's where we are now -- we are consulting with tribal governments, tribal leaders, and tribal stakeholders to consider changes to a range of federal disaster assistance processes and topics:

  • Input on the major disaster declaration process, 
  • Criteria to declare a major disaster, 
  • Program delivery, and 
  • The unique aspects of Indian culture that might not be currently considered by the rules. 

I encourage our tribal partners to join us in developing rules through consultation.  You’re invited to join a series of upcoming tribal consultation calls, provide ideas to FEMA’s online collaboration community, or send an e-mail to tribalconsultation@fema.dhs.gov.  Now is a great time to make sure the unique needs of Indian Country are considered throughout the federal disaster assistance process.

Why are we looking for input from the community?  Up to this point, FEMA has established rules around the disaster declaration process, assistance programs, and other aspects of federal assistance to meet the needs of state governments and individuals in those states.  Now, with the recent amendment to the Stafford Act, we have an opportunity to change those rules with regards to the sovereignty of tribal nations. 

In a little more than two months since the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act became law, the President has already signed two disaster declarations directly for Indian Country. The new changes have already resulted in federal disaster assistance going directly to tribal communities.

But there’s still much to be done. That's why we're having these consultation calls, gathering feedback online, and asking for e-mails. Once the consultation concludes, FEMA will draft proposed rules. Learn more about how to join this discussion by visiting FEMA’s online collaboration community, or send us an e-mail at tribalconsultation@fema.dhs.gov.  

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